Science, Science and Society

Why science denial is so very dangerous

I heart TED - something to which I’m sure I’ve confessed in past.


This morning, I got a fantastic email with some of the latest talks to be posted on TED.

michael specterWhile they’re all (of course) brilliant, I’ll make special mention of a talk, entitled ‘The danger of science denial‘, by New Yorker writer Michael Specter.  Not himself someone with a science background, he talks about how researching stories led him to be at first bemused, and then appalled, at the growing tide of anti-science feeling both in the US and beyond its borders.

He speaks movingly about the herbal, anti-vaccine and the anti-GM movements, amongst other things, and opines (I believe correctly) that believing in ‘magic’ - including unproven herbal remedies - rather than evidence can lead people down a path they don’t want to go.  The perfect example of this path is, perhaps, the behaviour shown by South Africa’s previous president Thabo Mbeki.

[Our dearly beloved president at the time decided to fly in the face of all evidence (sound familiar, anyone), and denied that HIV was the cause of AIDS.  Brilliant move.  He then, (in conjunction with the country’s health minister) refused to promote the use of antiretrovirals, instead promoting the benefits of garlic, beetroot, and one or two other veggies.  I’m sure you can imagine the horror of my lecturer  at the time Ed Rybicki* and fellow students at this behaviour - it’s estimated to have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of South Africans.]

Another example?  Not using GM to improve crops which the third world could use to feed itself.

Michael’s very much of the opinion that, if we’re not careful, not only could science denialism lead to problems such as a resurgence of diseases such as measles** and, terrifyingly, polio, but it could also prevent humanity carrying out some of the science we’ll need to in the future.  And, given the future we’re currently facing, I’m very much of the opinion that the more useful science we can do, the better.

I see hope for us, as does he, but it’s conditional hope…

Other brilliant talks out this week on TED:

Pollen grains are fascinating - many of us have seen extreme close-up photos of pollen grains, but Jonathan Drori expands on the topic, showing just how diverse they are under the lens of a microscope.

Robots are doing it for themselves - Dennis Hong tells us about seven very different all-terrain robots, all of whom however are unified by being award-winning.

Photographs which shaped history - photographs do more than just document history, as Jonathan Klein shows in a presentation demonstrating the effect a truly powerful image can have.

And, for the more artily-inclined - Natalie Merchant combines ‘near-forgotten 19th century poetry’ with, well, an almost old-fashioned voice, to do something quite melodic, and definitely worth listening to.


* Ed’s a well-known expert on HIV, and blogs at ViroBlogy and Retroid Raving.

** The anti-vaccine movement in New Zealand is already having an effect, with measles - a disease which is seldom fatal but can cause disfigurement and even blindness - on the rise.

  • Ken Perrott

    Great minds and all that. I seem to have duplicated a post to the Specter video (for tomorrow am). Oh well, more of this won’t hurt.

  • Grant Jacobs

    Just as well I didn’t post it last night as I was going to…! :-)

  • rainman

    I agree with much of what you say (which might surprise some), but there’s a bigger lesson, I fear. The great unwashed may stumble on science denialism but too often the scientists (and economists for that matter) fail on humanity or politics denialism. Science has done great things for humanity (and I hope it does many more, if that construct even makes sense), but technology (which is what we’re really talking about) is always wielded by humans. Flawed, irrational, venal, greedy, unprincipled (ok, and a few good things too) humans.

    Take GM. I won’t argue the science because it wouldn’t be a fair fight, but consider the politics. Let’s say that GM research delivers a perfectly safe set of crops that “the third world could use to feed itself”. Zero unanticipated side-effects (which would almost be a first, and undoubtedly quite unlikely, but anyway). But let’s also say all of these GM wonder crops are owned by a Monsanto-like corporate, who act in some rather unprincipled ways regarding their patents and products. Good outcome, or not? Not so simple, is it?

    (And if you’re thinking this is needless paranoia, read about Plumpy’nut:

    Let’s assume to great corporate beast, despite having every incentive to act in nasty ways, behaves itself. And the starving billions in Africa and elsewhere get fed. Think we won’t just have increased resource use, greater population, the same inequalities, and ultimately the same problem as we have now? If not, why do we have this scenario today?

    Don’t get me wrong, science is a wonderful thing. Doesn’t understand everything but then no-one would claim it does. It’s the only sensible approach to understanding some of our universe. Not all. But real progress for humanity requires more than just morebetter technology, it needs a bit of people reform too. And if you hard scientists don’t pay attention to the whole picture, you could be complicit in delivering some very sub-optimal outcomes.

    BTW, don’t beat up the herbalists so: modern medicine owes a great deal to herbalism. Some respect is due. Sure, the old ways aren’t optimal for everything (but work just fine for some conditions), and careful science can improve some outcomes, but be careful you don’t drink the big pharma kool-aid. Same logic as above applies.

  • jonathanh13

    I think Michael Specter is being very idealistic - things are a bit murkier in the real world

    Proponents of GM never talk about the intensive pesticide regimes involved with these crops. Crops are often genetically modified to be resistant to a specific pesticide, which is then used intensively to kill everything else. Pesticide regimes are one of the vectors responsible for wiping out bee colonies, such as clothianidin, made by Bayer CropScience - responsible for killing 60% of Germany’s bees in 2008. This pesticide, along with 7 others like it is now banned in Germany. The situation is the same, if not worse, in the US. Killing all the bees is not the best way to prevent world hunger. There are very good scientific reasons for opposing GM.

    The Journal of the American Medical Association (vol 279, pg1200) found that prescribed drugs are the fourth most common cause of death in the US. This study left out overdose, abuse and wrong administration, so the actual numbers of deaths are much higher. Charles Medawar, author of Power and Dependence, found that at any time 10000 hospital beds in the UK are occupied by people who have been damaged by prescribed drugs.

    Mr Specter also talks about the uselessness of vitamins, and then goes on to talk about the advantages of increasing vitamin A in rice using GM?! In his own words “you are not entitled to your own facts!” Extracts of Ginkgo leaves contain flavonoid glycosides and terpenoids (ginkgolides, bilobalides) and have been used pharmaceutically. Ginkgo extract’s primary effect on the human body: improved blood flow - Schwabe-Pharma study. “When you get proof, you need to accept the proof!”

    This issue is less about scientific method against fear and superstition, and more about science twisted by money, profit, and capitalism.

  • Aimee Whitcroft


    A first point: scientists have never claimed, nor wanted, to be the people to make the ‘human’ or policy decisions. They simply want to figure out how things work, and what is going on. They may, in many cases, be asked to share their knowledge, but it is not up to THEM to make policy. To confuse science, with the misapplication of it by naughty people, is unfair

    And yes - the GM debate is absolutely a complicated one, as I fully understand. Please bear in mind: I simply posted a video, with a short description of some of the issues he covers. But you’re right - a large, Monsanto-like corporation would be a bad thing. But starving people? Really? I think that’s worse (and I’m African myself, meaning I have perhaps a more personal view on this than many). The thing is, though: to polarise the argument as such is unfair - there are leagues of grey in the middle with which we can realistically work. Certainly the fear of what a large company might do should not get in the way of the science being carried out - even companies can be made to behave!

    And no - fewer starving people means less war, less illegal immigration, less misery. In fact, a family with a little bit of extra food can earn the money to send its children to school. Education lifts people out of poverty. So fewer starving people is _absolutely_ a good thing. Are you really advocating letting people starve?!?

    And yes - we need people reform too. But that’s not up to science. That’s up to _people_.

    Finally - yes, I know modern medicine owes much to herbalism. And believe me, that was not beating up on herbalists :) But many ‘natural’ products sold (perhaps that would have been a better word) show little or no efficacy, while still stripping people’s pockets. And don’t even get me _started_ on the homeopathy crowd… I’m not drinking big-pharma kool-aid at all, but I’m prepared not to be blinkered, either.


    Of course he’s being a little idealistic. That’s not always a bad thing, as it can provide something to at least _aim_ for. And he’s also trying to make a strong point (which I think he has).

    Your comment about pesticides and GM is fair, but I think it’s a little bit sweeping to say that GM is killing all the bees (it’s not) and, frankly, that seems more like a problem to be overcome than a reason to oppose GM per se.

    Wrt vitamins - he talks about them in completely different contexts! And yes, as I mentioned in my response to rainman, some plants have absolutely been found to have brilliant medical properties, which we use. That does not, however, necessarily mean that ‘herbal’ is better than ‘pharmaceutical’. As for deaths from prescribed drugs - having not read the study, I can’t comment, but something there definitely sounds a little strange. Of course, I’d want to see what the actual numbers were (there could be a very large step down between cause 3 and 4, for example).

  • Darcy Cowan

    Very nice comeback Aimee.
    Just wrt the “Drugs are leading cause of Death” argument the point has to be made that without including the numbers of people helped by drugs a proper risk/benefit assessment cannot be made.
    I am absolutely not saying drugs are always safe so head off that thinking right now, but to wholesale denigrate them on only one sided data is not the way to go either.

    just to jump on Aimee’s point she said “unproven herbal remedies” not simply herbal remedies, your argument does not apply as we could also decry the use of “unproven pharmaceuticals”, (and so we should!)

  • rainman

    Aimee, of course there is a distinction between the ideal of science and the political misapplication of technology derived from science, and yes, it is down to people. That, I believe, was my point.

    You were the one saying science denialism, a “very dangerous” thing from your headline, might lead to bad things like “Not using GM to improve crops which the third world could use to feed itself”.

    What I’m asking is whether using GM to improve crops… etc is a good thing when it is overwhelmingly likely to come at the price of greater corporate control of the food system, and a suppression of alternative food production systems. Cheaper feudalism vs more expensive autonomy, essentially.

    Is it really valid to only consider the science, and not the context?

    Indeed, politics ain’t science, and science cannot be held responsible for the orneryness of people, but it would be nice sometimes to hear scientists at least articulate the need for responsible use of technology, rather than continue to paint glorious futures with little or no emphasis on the cost. Perhaps some of the science denialism stems from people losing faith in the overblown promises science has already made - where’s my flying car? :)

    (Actually, its probably due to the current rebellion against inconvenient science, like climate change and evolution).

    And no, I am not proposing people starve. As a fellow African, I’ve seen plenty of starvation up close and personal. But the truth is, science can’t fix that problem.


    On herbalism, I have some questions: For many low-end complaints, there are effective herbal treatments using common herbs. Some, as you point out, have been improved on by science to deliver better, often synthetic products, but the herbal options are quite workable, as is evidenced by the billions living in the third world who make use of them. These can be purchased in the western world, where I think your “stripping people’s pockets” comment comes from, but can also easily be grown and prepared in the home. Do you think the fact that this does not commonly occur anymore has nothing to do with pharmaceutical companies and their marketing? Do you think that the increase in effectiveness and predictability of the science-delivered treatments (for low-end complaints remember) is more valuable than the associated reduction in self-sufficiency and resilience?

  • drmike

    rainman, I think you make some very interesting points. I think your point about it being hard for people to accept “inconvenient” science is very true and this is one of the reasons why the climate change debate is so heated. And in debates about GM the political and scientific arguments get mixed, when it would make much more sense to assess any scientific difficulties with any political difficulties separately.

    Regarding the “overblown” promises of science. We may not have flying cars but science has given us the capability to treat many diseases, to communicate virtually instanteously with almost anyone anywhere on the planet, to look deep into space, to travel almost anywhere in the world within 24, to live much longer and more fulfilled lives. Note I use the word capability as not everyone avails themselves of some of the things we have learned e.g. not everyone eats what we know to be a healthy diet etc). I would suggest also that flying cars are now technically possible just impractical.
    Regarding herbal remedies, some have been proven to work, however I would suggest that the majority of remedies available in many health shops have not been proven, scientifically, to have any more than a placebo effect.

    I think it is great to have scientifically trained people involved in assisting politicians with their decisions. However, given that scientists tend to focus on what the evidence shows and politicians focus on what the public want, this is a challenging relationship.
    Scientists, such as many of those who write these blogs, who take the time to communicate their knowledge in public fora are also an asset. But there are challenges in doing this, as it can be frowned upon by some of their colleagues, and if they get too involved with some viewpoints they can be attacked as having lost their objectivity or in areas such as climate change or vaccine research, as corrupt or industrial shills. Not to mention, time communicated takes time away from running your research group, teaching, and filling out grant applications.
    I take my hat off to the many scientists who contribute to this site, for taking the time to communicate their ideas, and to those who ask interesting questions.